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Chris Erskine / THE GUY CHRONICLES

One Family's Quest for Red Meat

May 05, 1999|Chris Erskine

"Hey, let's plant some tomatoes," I say one morning, once again stunning the rest of the family with my spontaneity. Fifteen years I've been a father, and I can still surprise them like this.

"Plant what?" they ask.

"Tomatoes," I say.

And they pile in the car, excited at the prospect of raising their own tomatoes, the hottest food on the planet right now.

Some people call tomatoes a fruit. Some call them a vegetable. Me, I call them meat. That's how much I like them. To me, they're meat.

"Let's go get some meat," the boy says.

"That's the spirit," I tell him.

On the way to the garden center, I explain how important tomatoes have become to a daily diet, how doctors say they help your heart. And your prostate--the only gland that might be more important than a heart.

"I want a healthy prostate," says the boy.

"Me too," says the little red-haired girl.

"Then follow me," I say as we pull into the giant garden center.

*

Gardening was once a simple pleasure performed mostly by grandmothers, who kneeled over their tiny backyard plots, as if praying.

No more. Now gardening is a full-fledged sport. Today, every town in America has a huge garden center, the focal point of the community. People of every age kneel over their backyard plots. As if praying.

"Over here, Dad," says the little girl, pulling the cart toward the rake display.

We grab things as we go. Twine. A pack of pumpkin seeds. A kite.

"Over here," says the boy, wanting to sit on the big lawn tractors.

Eventually, we come to the tomato section, nearly a full aisle in the huge garden center, with row after row of 3-inch tomato plants, all looking the same.

"Can I help you?" the garden center guy asks.

This is really what he says. Can I help you? At first, I suspect it is some sort of prank, because on a Saturday morning in May, you never find a garden store guy to help you. But he seems sincere. So we play along.

"We need some tomatoes," the boy says.

"What kind?" he asks.

"Big honkin' red ones," I say.

And the kids look at the ceiling and shove their hands in their pockets and make a mental note not to be seen with their dad again. At least not at the garden store.

"What kind?" the clerk asks again, not sure he heard right.

"How about some Bouncin' Betties?" I tell the clerk.

He thinks a second, evidently trying to remember where he put the Bouncin' Betties in this giant aisle of tomatoes.

"Sir, I think Bouncin' Betties are land mines," the garden guy says.

"Of course," I say.

You wouldn't know it, but I'm a third-generation tomato grower, the son of a son of a tomato grower, the descendant of people who plowed the rich suburban soil, pruning and tending the tender plants till they produced succulent tomatoes the size of softballs, so full of flavor that they'd split down the middle, trying to divide in two in some sort of tomato mitosis.

Come late summer, tomatoes would be everywhere, in great salads and shish kabob and straight off the vine.

"Here, have a tomato," I'd tell my little sister.

"Thanks," she'd say, and I'd toss her one. Not too hard, maybe 50 or 60 mph. Caught it with her knee.

"Mom!" she'd yell after I'd thoughtfully shared a tomato with her.

Thirty years later, the kids and I are going to raise our own crop of tomatoes, big 10-pounders we'll carry from the garden to the house in bowling ball bags, tomatoes for salads and soups and tomato sauce, because that's how they say tomatoes really help you, when they're cooked and the heat releases the magic nutrients.

If all goes well, by August we'll have a house full of tomatoes. We'll have to have extra kids, just to eat them all.

"Where do they keep the kids," I say as we head up and down the aisles.

"The what?" the boy says.

"Never mind," I say.

In no time, our big garden cart is full. We have tomatoes and peppers and bags of fertilizer.

We have big cone-shaped fences for the plants to climb and chicken wire to keep gophers and other critters out. Two years ago, we planted tomatoes. Gophers got them. Gophers with very healthy prostates.

"We need dirt, Dad," the boy says.

This always gets me, buying dirt. Back in the Midwest, they had dirt galore, rich and dark as chocolate. There was so much dirt, we used to throw it out. Back then, dirt was dirt cheap.

"OK," I say. "Let's get some dirt."

And we pile the bags of dirt on our garden cart and head for the checkout.

"That's $27.50," the checkout clerk says, which is pretty good for a few plants, some chicken wire, a kite and three bags of dirt.

As the kids watch, I dig into my pockets. There I find an old Dodger stub, two tickets to last week's school carnival (NO REFUNDS) and 7 cents, one of which isn't really a cent but a Lifesaver filled with lint.

"Can I have the Lifesaver?" the boy asks.

"Sure," I say.

Which leaves me just 6 cents, an old Dodger stub and two tickets to last week's school carnival (STILL NO REFUNDS).

"Twenty-seven-fifty," the clerk says again.

I finally dig out enough cash and we load up the van, first the bags of soil, then the chicken wire, which keeps snagging the upholstery.

"I'll hold the tomatoes, Dad," the little girl says as she climbs into the car.

"On your lap?" I ask.

"They'll be safer," she says, which is just the kind of talk you'd hope to hear from a fourth-generation tomato grower like her. Somewhere, her grandfather is smiling, knowing the little red-haired girl handles tomato plants with such care.

"Drive slow, Dad," the little girl says.

As we pull out of the garden center parking lot, she cradles the tiny tomato plants like a box of puppies.

"Drive slow," she says again.

"Sure thing," I say.

Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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